Saharan Guitar Music

The vast swathes of the Sahel and Sahara regions in West Africa may not look like much from a map, but for centuries they’ve been criss-crossed by trading caravans and pilgrims, creating unique migration patterns and allowing for the exchange of food, language, and ideas. So it’s no surprise that today this sandy and arid region is home to multiple generations of musicians who’ve embraced the key instrument of American and European rock ’n’ roll.

From Timbuktu to Agadez, singers and songwriters have embraced the guitar as a mode of expression and musical reinvention. The instrument is believed to have distant roots in the Sahara region, as West Africans taken to North America during the transatlantic slave trade brought with them songs and dances that went onto inform the music of future bluesmen like Robert Johnson. The blues were reinvented again by Ali Farka Touré, the Malian singer and songwriter famed for his mesmerizing guitar style. But there’s also Tuareg bands like Tinariwen, who first picked up guitars in the 1980s as a way to articulate the struggles and sadness of their generation, as the Tuareg people were beset by displacement, drought and later took up arms in rebellions against the governments of Niger and Mali.

Today, the recording industry and international festival circuit is packed with now-familiar names from the Sahara region, including younger generations of artists like the Sahrawi singer/songwriter Aziza Brahim and the electric guitar virtuoso Mdou “Bombino” Moctar from the frontier city of Agadez in Niger. This playlist reflects the many talents who come from this rich modern tradition.